Getting Ziggy with it
CD CHOICE: DAVID BOWIE/The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars EMI *****
In 1971, David Bowie was an impatient man. With four albums under his belt (his latest the brilliant Hunky Dory), and no sign of the big commercial breakthrough, Bowie was starting to wonder when the hell he’d be famous. He needed something spectacular to rocket him to stardom, and so he conceived the idea of the “ultimate rock’n’roll star”, an androgynous, sexed-up human/alien figure who inspired fervent devotion in his fans. It would be a gender- bending, glitter-specked musical, cabaret meets Dante’s Inferno, with Bowie channelling Judy Garland from somewhere in space.
Through the character of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie could muse on fame, sexual identity and the human condition; the beauty of it, of course, was that life imitated art: Ziggy turned Bowie into the star he always believed he could be.
While not a strictly a concept album, Ziggy Stardust touched on similar themes to Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy – the star who turns into a “leper messiah” and is ultimately destroyed by his own disciples. Happily, Bowie didn’t need two sprawling discs, with overtures and recurring motifs, to get his message across. In just 38 minutes of breathless, urgent, sexually charged pop, Bowie invented the decade’s most potent cultural icon.
Of course, Ziggy didn’t just land on earth out of nowhere – Bowie borrowed heavily from several sources to put together his perfect being.
The name is an amalgam of Iggy Pop and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and the musical references run from Berlin cabaret (Lady Stardust) to doo-wop (Suffragette City and Star) to The Wizard of Oz (Starman’s chorus cheekily mimics Somewhere Over the Rainbow).
The album sneaks up on you with the stealthy drumbeat that opens Five Years, as Bowie sets the doomsday scene and sends myriad images flying into your peripheral vision: telephones, electric irons, TVs, cops, priests, queers, opera houses, ice-cream parlours and cadillacs, ratcheting up the sense of panic as the song builds in intensity. Moonage Daydream is a carnal fantasia that climaxes in a flurry of screaming guitars and violins. Ooh-er, missus.
Starman was the hook that reeled in a whole generation of teenagers and rocked their brainy heads. When Bowie performed it on Top of the Pops in July 1972, dressed in space-age chic, arm draped languidly around guitarist Mick Ronson’s neck, he seduced young viewers with the promise of a glowing new saviour who would not only forgive their sins of the flesh, but would tempt them to commit even more.
Ziggy Stardust neatly summarises the tale, Bowie opening and closing the song with the immortal line, “Ziggy played guitar . . .”, and its equally immortal riff. In a final masterstroke, Bowie closes with the epic Rock’n’ Roll Suicide, reaching out to all the beautiful freaks of the world and reassuring them that they were not alone.
It’s hard to improve on near-perfection. Bowie and Mick Ronson’s original production is a masterclass in tight, sonic immediacy but the remastered version does sharpen the flavour of forbidden fruit. davidbowie.net
Download tracks: All of them of course, but if I really had to I’d pick Moonage Daydream, Starman, Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City.